In the Crow’s Nest

Sailing a square rigger

High above the deck, the ship looked small, like a table tennis ball bobbing in a bathtub. I felt tenuously linked to it. There was the mast made from a solid timber trunk, but that narrowed to a pinpoint by the time my eye followed it down to the hull. I was perched on a yardarm that hung out over the side of the ship, over the water. My arms were wrapped around a spar only 20 centimetres across and the only thing supporting my weight was a wobbly, scratchy piece of rope. As the ship rolled gently in the harbour swell, every small movement was magnified at 80 feet off the water. I was terrified. I was 15. I was trying my best not to give either away to the dreadlocked Swedish girl who had taken us aloft.

Square riggers are sailing ships, but bear no relation to the mega-yachts you see these days with jet ski garages, spa pools and sun loungers. They were working ships, designed for carrying cargo, passengers, guns and for chasing pirates. They are from an age when sailing was the only way to get overseas. Some were huge, hundreds of feet long and capable of carrying tons of cargo. They required numerous crew at any one time just to keep them moving. Everything was manual. There were no winches or electronics – the helmsman was directly connected to the rudder, the sails were pulled up by a string of men lined up on the yardarm. When the braces and anchors needed more power, more men were added to the task.

There is something undeniably romantic about square riggers. Everyone who has looked out at the sea and dreamed of crossing the Pacific will know what I'm talking about it. It is adventure. It’s the great expanse, the always receding horizon. And it’s that little bit of danger that’s always present at sea. All things you will never get on a Virgin Blue flight to Sydney or the bumper-boat ride at Rainbows End.

I was on a 145 ft Brigantine (twin-masted ship) with a crew of 32. It had 23 individual sails, one of them imaginatively called the 'dolphin striker.' We were sailing in the Bay of Islands in the annual Tallships Race where classic and antique yachts come from all over the world to race each other. The race is not too serious. Water-bomb catapult teams fling their missiles through the air whenever another ship comes near and anyone trying too hard to win is lambasted at the booze-up afterwards.

Square riggers have been replaced in modern times by the fibreglass and aluminium sloops (one masted ships) you see parked in marinas. These can be beautiful boats too and have their own romantic appeal, but they don't have that working-class teak and hemp feel of a square rigger. They are faster and lighter and more comfortable, but there is something decidedly less adventurous about all that. Designed for weekend jaunts to safe harbours, they don't yearn to roll their way out of the harbour and off into deep blue. They don't fill the sky when under full sail. Most of them can be sailed by one person. Most of them have winches to hoist and drop the sails. Most never leave their berths.

I still have the photo of my brother and I clutching at the rigging, the ship barely perceptible below. I have shoulder-length, sun-bleached hair as was the fashion of the time and I'm wearing old track pants cut off into shorts. My brother has a shaved head, a stripy t-shirt and a tooth missing. We're grinning from ear to ear not unlike a couple of buccaneers making chase across the sparkling waters of the Caribbean, a gold-laden Spanish galleon rising above the horizon.